Anthony Marra, is a young American writer who grew up in Washington, DC, and has lived and studied in Russia. His work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. In 2013 Marra received the prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award. His debut novel is entitled A Constellation of Vital Phenomena(2013). His story “Chechnya” won First Place in Narrative’s Spring 2009 Story Contest and has received many prizes since then. In today’s programe, Bertha Morris talks with Mr Marra about his work and his career.
BERTHA MORRIS: Welcome to our interview Mr. Marra
ANTHONY MARRA: Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be here.
BERTHA:Mr. Marra, you are 28, but you seem simultaneously older and younger. You have a rather boyish manner, yet your hair is already flecked with gray.
ANTHONY:Ha, ha! I know; and yet I still have to finish writing school. I’m finishing up the second year of a Fellowship at Stanford.
BERTHA: And you have already published a novel and a number of short stories. Tell me about your novel. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, unusual for a first novel, is purely a work of research and invention, without even a hint of autobiography.
ANTHONY: Yes, but I’ll tell you something: I took a year off between high school and college, during which I worked in a store. I missed my girlfriend a lot and began writing short stories about a lovelorn guy working in the same store. One of them had three pages on a single kiss! (He laughs)
BERTHA: Does that mean you are no longer interested in autobiographical fiction?
ANTHONY: Not at the moment. I quickly realized I lived the least interesting literary life imaginable. My parents are happily married. There haven’t been any major traumas in my family. I’m not sure that the story of my life would be much fun to read.
BERTHA: So you had a rather uneventful childhood. How influential were your parents in your decision making and your career?
ANTHONY: My father once said to me: If you want to be a geologist, be a geologist.” Ican’t recall when, exactly, my dad said this to me. Maybe I was in high school, or it could have been at someone’s graduation, at a celebration, a place where the road forks, where journeys begin. It wasn’t intended to be advice but the kind of thing we say and hear and forget about every day.
BERTHA:And did you follow his advice?
ANTHONY: No! I’ve never had the slightest desire to be a geologist. But my dad did, at least briefly. He studied geology in college. He served in Vietnam, went to professional school, went to work, and the necessities of earning a living and supporting a family narrowed the field of geology to a corner of his office desk that held a few quartz rocks. When I was a kid we went to a beach one afternoon to look for prehistoric shark teeth. Instead we found all sorts of bizarre and beautiful rocks, and my dad knew all about them. It was a fun day.
BERTHA: It is true, isn’t it, that our lives are often shaped by small, seemingly trivial choices and the advice that guides those choices can come to us just by chance.
ANTHONY: Indeed! When my father said, “If you want to be a geologist, be a geologist,” what I heard were his words of encouragement, a paternal blessing . Now I think of it less as advice than as a reminder to thank my lucky stars. Few people have the privilege to do what they love for a living, and in that sense I am, in a way at least, a geologist.
BERTHA: Let’s go back to your novel. Six years after starting to think about Chechnya, the disputed Russian republic that became the setting for your acclaimed new novel, you visited Russia for the first time. Until the Boston Marathon bombings most Americans paid little attention to Chechnya. How did your interest on Chechnya arise?
ANTHONY: My own interest actually began during an undergraduate semester studying in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2006. I arrived there not long after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who exposed Russian atrocities in Chechnya. At a metro stop near my apartment, I could see Russian veterans of the Chechen wars, drinking and begging for change.
BERTHA: And what did you find there?
ANTHONY: I didn’t know what to expect, I traveled with a guide and talked to Chechens, many of whom were still trying to recover from years of war and occupation.
BERTHA: So, although your novel is not autobiographical you did make a great deal of research and documentation to be accurate about facts.
ANTHONY: Oh, yes. Research is not an obstacle or something to be frightened of. It can be one of the real joys of writing. Someone once said, ‘Don’t write what you know; write what you want to know.’ But to make a book convincing, it’s less important that the right tree be in the right place than that the characters are emotionally real. I did the best I could to make the environment and the setting as realistic as possible, but I hope it’s the characters and the emotional reality that make the book true.
BERTHA: One literary critic, writing in The New York Times, called your book “ambitious and ntellectually restless.” Another fan of yours is Sarah Jessica Parker, who in a review for Entertainment Weekly described it as “full of humanity and hope.” So it seems you have fully succeeded.
ANTHONY: I was deeply moved by the Chechens who were just trying to retain their humanity. I’ll be pleased if my readers appreciate that.
BERTHA:Anthony, thank you very much for sharing your time with us. And the best of luck with your books.
ANTHONY: That’s very kind. It’s been my pleasure.